Roma’s hopes of getting anything out of their clash with Juventus on Sunday were quickly and ruthlessly dashed.
Merih Demiral turned in a free kick after three minutes, before Jordan Veretout bundled over Paulo Dybala to give Cristiano Ronaldo the chance to convert a second from the penalty spot with just 10 minutes played.
The Giallorossi badly needed a reaction, something to spark them into life. That was exactly what they got when star-in-the-making Nicolo Zaniolo embarked on a wonderful box-to-box dribble before winning a free-kick in a dangerous position.
It was a moment that lifted the Olimpico crowd. But hope soon turned to despair as realisation dawned that the winger had seriously hurt himself.
A stretcher cart came on the pitch and the 20-year-old was ushered off in tears, head in hands.
After the game, Roma confirmed what had already been widely feared: Zaniolo had ruptured the ACL in his right knee.
It is a devastating blow for a young player who has become crucial for both club and country since bursting onto the scene last season.
Italy coach Roberto Mancini watched on in horror from the stands. Zaniolo’s injury is serious enough that he not only risks missing the rest of the season, but this summer’s European Championships too; a tournament the youngster promised to be a breakout star of.
But his absence could be even more catastrophic for Roma, as Paulo Fonseca tears his hair out once more as injuries stack up.
The Portuguese’s squad has been plagued by injury problems this season, and his ability to instil a style of play and keep Roma right in the Champions League hunt while bodies fall by the wayside has been commendable.
What they do now will be interesting. Henrikh Mkhitaryan, Javier Pastore and Justin Kluivert are also injured, while Cengiz Under has flattered to deceive this season, showing little signs of being a player capable of stepping into Zaniolo’s big boots.
A (very) slim silver lining for Roma is that this has happened in January, when they have a chance to delve into the transfer market for reinforcements.
Inter’s Matteo Politano has already been mentioned as a potential candidate, and Fonseca said in his post-match press conference that he would speak to sporting director Gianluca Petrachi about replacing Zaniolo.
The sooner the better. Here’s wishing Zaniolo a speedy recovery.
Juventus won’t just be winter champions at this rate
Juventus’ fast and furious start was a sight to behold. This is a team that is starting to drip with swagger and confidence.
The intuitive passing and movement is suggestive of a side that is at the latter end of the transformation between learning Maurizio Sarri’s methods and executing them automatically.
There are still a few inaccuracies to be ironed out, which Sarri himself underlined in the post-match press confidence, but at their best this Juve side look miles ahead of the rest of Serie A.
The worrying thing for those hoping for a title race is that it seems clear that if Inter were to seriously challenge Juve this season, they would already need to have a substantial lead to protect.
Instead, they find themselves two points behind a team that is getting better and better, and led by the best Cristiano Ronaldo we have seen since his arrival in Italy; a man with nine goals in his last six league games now.
The Bianconeri have won the Scudetto in each of the six times they were crowned winter champions – it’s becoming hard to find a reason they won’t do so again.